In the Lab at OSU: Programming at the Particle Party

by Natalie Keyes

It’s a rare high school student who doesn’t feel awkward and unsure. In that respect, I felt distinctly ordinary as I walked into the soaring atrium of the Physics Research Building for the first time last June. Despite this, my overwhelming feeling was a mix of excitement and amazement. Excitement that I got in contact with a physics professor, Dr. Amy Connolly, after the ASPIRE summer physics workshop in 2014—amazement that she was willing to take me on as an intern in her own physics lab! I knew that I would be working on the ANITA neutrino research project in Dr. Connolly’s group, but I had only a vague understanding of what that entailed. It surprised me, though, how quickly my work came into focus. I was paid, incredibly, to program in Mathematica and think about physics for four hours a day. I went to meetings and even presented my work to ANITA project collaborators from around the country! For the first time in my life, the results of my work were tangible and mattered to a project bigger than myself. My experience impressed on me how real an impact I can have by pursuing my passion for the subjects I love.


Dr. Connolly’s physics lab.

On the first day, I marveled as Dr. Connolly showed me around the lab where I would be working—a desk and computer surrounded by genial grad students programming and soldering, two floors down from a lecture room where I would get to attend talks through the Center for Emergent Materials about everything from black hole thermodynamics to physics education. As I spent my first day reading about the ANITA collaboration’s research, I Googled term after term I didn’t know and realized how little I really knew in the grand scheme of physics. That sense of disorientation scared me at first, but it ultimately fueled my determination to learn and contribute in the days to follow. It took me a few days to adjust to my environment and become knowledgeable about my project and tools, but once I understood what was going on, I got to take on some substantive work.


And me!

Because of my interest in computer science, Dr. Connolly assigned me to program a simulation for the next-generation ANITA 4 neutrino probe. At the first group meeting I attended, the researchers and grad students scribbled out on the board their idea for improving the probe’s capability to block out extraneous radio signals. ANITA’s mission is to detect faint radio emissions from neutrino interactions in the Antarctic ice, so the probe has to be impervious to disruptive radio noise from scientific stations nearby. In order to ignore these unwanted signals, the probe has to ‘deaden’ specific sectors of its instrument while in flight. They asked me to prototype a program that could use the probe’s heading data, which indicated the direction it faced, to predictively block specific sectors of the probe. I felt extremely grateful and excited that Dr. Connolly and her team gave me this opportunity to contribute something significant to the group!


My workstation in the lab.

Before this summer I had programmed for myself only, but now that I was developing code for others to use later, I had to learn a whole new approach to programming. Over the past few years, I’ve taught myself to code in HTML, JavaScript, and Java through various online resources, but this self-directed learning didn’t have the rigor and form I needed to write neat, consistent code for a group. Instead of testing over and over until my program worked, I planned the exact structure of my code before I wrote it. When the model fit function gave erroneous results, I had to refer to the Mathematica documentation to work through exactly how my code misused it. When my ‘for’ loop ran infinitely and crashed my entire program, I had to trace the erroneous line back to a completely different section of code I had written two weeks before. On some days, I stared at the same five lines of code for three hours and went home with a furrowed brow, but the elation of finally solving the problem the next day was worth it. In the end, I conquered the intricacies of Mathematica and created a working final product.


Two pages from my lab notebook: planning and early code for a noise-reduction method in my Mathematica program …


… and notes on the Askaryan effect from group meeting.










I was surprised and a little nervous when Dr. Connolly asked me to create a PowerPoint presentation and prepare a talk on my work to give at a weekly ANITA teleconference with collaborators from around the country. Although my PowerPoint skills are decent at best, and my speaking style can be frenetic at times, I presented a coherent description (see for yourself below!) of how I had tackled the problem of predicting the ANITA probe’s heading given past data. Sitting in front of the phone during the conference, fielding the questions thrown at me by professors from other universities, was certainly nerve-wracking. However, the professors and researchers on the phone with me at OSU supported me at every turn and helped answer more complicated questions. It was extremely rewarding to know that I had contributed something to the work the ANITA group did.

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Improving my physics, programming, and presentation skills were valuable benefits of my time in the lab. But one of the most important things I got out of this summer was a real concept of what it’s like to be a physicist in a university environment. Interacting with professors, researchers, and college students gave me role models in science to look up to as well as peers to connect with. The grad students in my lab welcomed me with open arms, offering guidance and science jokes and even organizing a group lunch at Chipotle on my last day. I got to engage in complex discussions about physics concepts from total internal reflection to electromagnetic phase to Snell’s Law with deeply knowledgeable and experienced researchers and professors. Most importantly, I am extremely grateful to Dr. Amy Connolly for her confidence in me and her support throughout my endeavors. Her confidence and capability in science enabled me to picture my own future in research. My time in the lab at OSU showed me how amazing a field physics truly is, as well as the vast opportunities open to me in it.


About Natalie Keyes

Bio_pictureI am a junior in high school at Columbus School for Girls and am the current high school editor for A Day in the Life! My interests include physics, math, computer science, and music, and I tend to code, read, and play cello in my free time. I’m also on my school’s robotics team, FRC Team 677, where I enthusiastically apply my love of building and programming to the “real world”. My dream career would be in the field of quantum computing, which combines my dual obsessions with particle physics and computer science in a fascinating way. At this point I am pretty certain that my interest in physics and computers will guide my life endeavors, and I can’t wait to see what kinds of adventures in STEM my future holds.